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Trying to understand the state of the backup catcher battle

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal. But I can’t wrap my head around it.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports

All of the talk around the Red Sox right now is around the rotation. We are part of that, too, and it’s obvious why people are talking so much about that particular positional value. Pitching depth has long been a problem for the Red Sox, and that was the case even before this Chris Sale stuff all started up. Throw in the ace mired in a cloud of uncertainty, and there’s no reason to think people won’t focus on this. Boston currently has two spots in their rotation up for grabs, which for all my math heads out there comprises 40 percent of the games. That’s a big deal! No one in their right mind would argue that this is the camp battle most worthy of intense following, insofar as any camp battle is worthy of intense following.

It is not the only battle going on in Red Sox camp, though, as there are a handful of roster spots feasibly up for grabs this year. There’s those final two rotation spots. There’s two (maybe three if Heath Hembree coughs up his spot) bullpen spots. There’s two utility spots. And there’s the backup catcher spot. The backup catcher spot is the one I have found myself following most closely as Kevin Plawecki and Jonathan Lucroy duke it out to sit behind Christian Vázquez on the depth chart.

I will readily admit that this is not the most thrilling matchup between exciting, high-upside players. I will also admit that, in an ideal world where Vázquez stays healthy all year, the job that these two are fighting for is relatively low-impact in nature. I understand why it’s not the “sexy” battle the rotation one is. (I don’t know that the rotation battle is sexy either, but I won’t kink shame.) This backup catcher battle is more simple though, for one thing, with just two relatively well-established players fighting for a spot. More importantly for my personal interest: I just don’t get it! Lucroy seems to be, at least narratively based on what the beat writers are reporting and opining from camp, the heavy favorite for the gig. It’s weird to me.

Boston Red Sox v Atlanta Braves Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

First, a little bit of background on both of these players. Lucroy easily has a more impactful past, as he was considered an MVP-caliber player for the first half of last decade. He hit his prime right as pitch framing became a big part of public evaluation. Not only was the former Brewer terrific at that skill, but he could also hit. From 2011 through 2016, while staying relatively healthy behind the plate, Lucroy put up a 116 wRC+. That’s really solid for anyone. It’s outstanding for a catcher with plus-plus pitch framing. Over the last three years, though, he has seen his performance crater. His defense has fallen off in a big way and he’s had wRC+’s of 80, 71 and 77.

Plawecki doesn’t have the same kind of established track record as the fellow catcher with whom he is battling for playing time, but he’s also no schlub. The former Met came up as a fairly well-regarded prospect, making a few top-100 lists in his day. He never quite made it as an everyday major-leaguer, struggling with the bat in his first two major-league seasons. He came back with better years in 2017 and 2018, though, putting up wRC+’s of 107 and 93, respectively, before falling off again last year with a 63 wRC+. Defensively, though, he’s been a consistently strong pitch frame, with just one weird blip in 2018.

I’m not going to sit here after that rundown and act as though Plawecki should be the clear favorite. I’m more just confused as to why Lucroy is. I get the sense that a big part of it is upside at the plate given his track record as a former MVP-caliber player. I just don’t know that this is super relevant, considering his last season within 19 percent of league-average was 2016. For context, in 2016 David Ortiz was the second-best hitter in baseball. Miguel Cabrera was still Miguel Cabrera. Hanley Ramirez was a top-30 bat. Some other bats around Lucroy on the wRC+ leaderboard were: Ian Kinsler, Ben Zobrist, José Bautista, Carlos Beltrán, Dustin Pedroia and Víctor Martínez. It was a long time ago, is what I’m trying to say.

Now, there is a little bit of important context to this, which is that Lucroy says he’s been bothered by a back injury over the last few years and that he had surgery this past winter to fix it. There is a real chance this will make him a better hitter! On the other hand, I find it strange to look at a catcher entering his age-34 season having offseason back surgery as a positive. Maybe it will make him hit better. Like I said, entirely possible! It’s also possible that he’s on the back nine of his career at the sport’s most grueling position with an injury to the part of the body that tends to not really get better. Plawecki, for what it’s worth, just turned 29 and has stayed relatively healthy in recent years.

It’s also worth noting that, while spring training stats don’t really matter, nothing Lucroy has shown in Grapefruit League action suggests he’s due for a breakout at the plate. Now, even Ron Roenicke acknowledged how little that matters, but if you’re a player like Lucroy and part of the case for you is a change that happened over the offseason that will reverse a three-year trend, it’s not wholly unfair to look at least a little at spring training if that’s the only sample we have available.

The defensive reputation precedes Lucroy as well. Over the last ten years, there are only a handful of catchers who have been more well thought of behind the dish than Lucroy. As I mentioned before, his prime came at the same time that pitch framing exploded in the public sphere, which is a big part of that. His actual production does not follow that reputation, though. By Baseball Prospectus’ metrics, he’s been a negative with his pitch framing in each of the last three seasons. Perhaps the back injury played a role here as well, but as I said I’m not convinced that the surgery is some sort of cure-all.

The most logical case for Lucroy, and the biggest reason I think he has vaulted to the top of this race, at least narratively, is his relationship with Ron Roenicke. He played under Roenicke for most of his best seasons and was signed in Boston around the same time as Roenicke was promoted to interim manager. It makes sense that you’d want a good relationship between catcher and manager, but A) does that really matter as much with the backup? And B) that should only matter if all else is essentially equal. Plus, he was out there as a free agent at the same time as Plawecki, and while Roenicke wasn’t the manager he was still on staff. You’d think that would still play a role. Like I said, I just don’t get it!

There are things that I can’t see from where I sit like how they fit in a clubhouse or how they deal with pitchers on a personal level. For that stuff, we have little choice but to defer to the team’s judgement. On paper, though, it’s at least even and even then you’re giving a good amount of benefit of the doubt to that back surgery fixing Lucroy. The fact is that projections have the offense for these two mostly even, Plawecki has been a better hitter more recently, and he’s also been much more stable defensively. On paper I would go with Plawecki. More importantly, I certainly wouldn’t make this Lucroy’s job to lose.